LV Rural Road Maintenance

Image: MoT, Vietnam

Low Volume Rural Road Maintenance Perspective

For the meaning of specific terms please refer to Road Maintenance.

Tertiary Rural and Access Roads, or Low Volume Rural Roads (LVRR), comprise the low (traffic) volume routes in developing countries and those in transition. Just as the higher traffic main roads, the effective management of LVRR requires the mobilisation of the four essential 'foundation blocks' of ownership, responsibility, finance and management (General Road Maintenance Retrospective). However, for the lower category LVRR routes the severely constrained financial resource environment, low traffic flows, physical and organisational challenges mean that innovative and local-resource-based approaches are required to achieve acceptable levels of basic access and affordable, sustainable levels of rural road maintenance.

What should it cost?

It is useful to start this discussion from a location a great distance away physically and operationally from the typical developing country rural road, to focus our minds on exactly what a 'limited resource environment' is.

The UK Highways Agency manages a network of about 9,400km of motorways and trunk roads valued at about £81billion. According to their website they will spend an average of UK£86,000/km (about US$170,000/km/year) on road maintenance and renewal of this network in the year 2007/8; this represents approximately 1% of the asset value.

Moving towards our target developing country, rural communities and using the World Bank's ROCKS database, the typical cost of maintaining a 2-lane bitumen sealed road in developing and transitional economies is about US$4,200/km/year, assuming periodic maintenance resealing on a 10 year cycle.

ROCKS also indicates that the typical cost for maintaining a gravel road is about US$4,500/km/year, assuming routine maintenance, 2 light gradings per year and a 5 year periodic regravelling cycle.

These prices are indicative only, and would obviously vary significantly depending on local factors and environment.

However, the above typical data serves to emphasis the contrast to the 'another world' environment under which local road authorities and poor communities with individual incomes in the region of US$1-2/person/day equivalent have to maintain rural and access roads in developing countries. There are simply not the resources within the government system or the communities themselves to carry out maintenance of the entire rural road network under the foregoing conventional sector arrangements; either by force account or contracting procedures. It is clear that traditional highway engineering management approaches are just not affordable or appropriate for the tertiary rural and access road networks without some major modifications and adaption. New pragmatic thinking is required for the maintenance of this globally extensive and vital rural infrastructure, which is absolutely necessary to support the range of other national poverty alleviation initiatives and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

We need to develop, disseminate and 'mainstream' successful rural and basic access road standards, provision and maintenance arrangements with overall costs in the range of US$50 - 500/km/year equivalent for ongoing maintenance. This challenge will require innovative technical and management approaches that mobilise effective cooperation and equitable contributions and responsibilities between the key stakeholders; the communities, road users, the government and other interested parties.

How can such low cost maintenance be achieved?

As with many things, low initial cost can mean high maintenance costs, and thus high overall Whole Life Costs. To reduce the maintenance burden of LVRR to affordable and sustainable levels, the routes should be designed to minimise the maintenance burden to realistically achievable and economic levels.

To achieve low cost maintenance of LVRR, the following aspects should be carefully considered:-

  • Establish the ownership and responsibility for the route.
  • Design for low maintenance, using appropriate and affordable standards for the category of route and traffic.
  • Ensure that all watercourse crossings are properly treated with appropriate low cost but durable treatments. The Low Cost Structures Guideline should be a reference document to use local resource based techniques using masonry, stone, timber and other local materials where possible.
  • Apply low maintenance surfaces where appropriate (Surface Options) - use Environmentally Optimised Design (EOD) approaches to determine appropriate road surfaces for each route section; from engineered natural surfaces (earth) through to durable paving and using spot improvement strategies. These are Basic Access Strategies.
  • Use local resources in the construction and maintenance (materials, labour, skills, enterprises, communities, intermediate equipment).
  • Mobilise central government, local government and community funds and resources where possible.
  • Seek material or simple equipment support, where these are absolutely necessary, from agencies, NGOs, religious organisations or other stakeholders.
  • Seek appropriate technical and management knowledge and provide training for those responsible for these roles.
  • Establish whether it is feasible and equitable for the community to make no-cost or subsidised cost contributions of labour for their roads.
  • If any work is contracted out, use locally based enterprises. Judicious selection of surfaces can allow local building contractors to use their skills and simple equipment, and employ local women and men, thus avoiding the high mobilisation and operational costs, and possible 'social' problems associated with the use of 'imported' major contractors from distant national or regional centres.
  • Seek to avoid the use of the LVRR by damaging vehicles, unless the users contribute adequately and fairly to the maintenance.
  • Seek to involve women and disadvantaged groups in an equitable, structured and adequately remunerated way, to provide local socio-economic benefits.
  • Monitor the maintenance work and discuss ways to improve it through dialogue with the implementers and stakeholders.
  • Inform stakeholders regularly of the maintenance performance; including resources consumed and output achieved.

Some Examples

Research on the Very Low Volume Rural Roads (VLVRR) comprising the gravel Rural Access and Minor Roads in Kenya, showed that the human resource input for a VLVRR in dry to moderately wet climates (up to 2,000mm/year) is in the order of 50 - 100 person-days of manual work per km per year for routine maintenance. This is for a labour-only system, with no equipment support except for a supervisor's vehicle; a motorcycle. This shows that the basic labour costs for such a system are in the order of only the equivalent of US$50 - 100/km/year with a market orientated paid labour wage rate of US$1/day. Naturally the costs of handtools, any imported materials and supervision would need to be added.

Experience with similar VLVRR in Zimbabwe (LCS Working Paper No 5) showed that an agricultural tractor and labour based routine maintenance system for gravel roads could be provided for a cost of US$260/km/year in 1997 prices, including all operational, equipment, facilities, overhead and finance costs. The local labour costs were just above the equivalent of US$2/day at that time. More recent pricing of the system estimates the costs to be about US$750/km/year including all financing and overhead costs.

The significant additional cost for such VLVRR is the periodic maintenance replacement of the gravel surface. These costs can be very substantial (LCS Working Paper No 1), and can easily require the equivalent of US$500 - 2,000/km/year on an annualised basis for this regravelling operation alone.

It is obvious that where local conditions allow and resources can be secured to avoid the use of gravel surfacing, a low maintenance surface can be provided that requires little more than labour orientated routine maintenance. Then overall maintenance can be achieved for the equivalent cost of only a few hundred dollars per km per year, even where labour wages are paid at the full prevailing market rate. This is certainly achievable for many road organisations or communities.

In some societies there is an established practice of community participation in activities such as community road maintenance. In Vietnam the provision of 10 days of community labour per year by all adults is enshrined in the legal system. Individuals have the choice to provide cash payments to the community in lieu of their labour. It is interesting to note that road maintenance is usually seen by the communities as the highest priority for their labour inputs. This can be seen as a simple and localised form of taxation with low overheads and direct local benefit (Commune Maintenance Handbook). In this case the cash cost of the routine maintenance system is close to zero, however the often crippling costs of the periodic maintenance regravelling remain, and are the main source of system problems. Principally because of this problem, there has been a move to more robust, low maintenance, alternative surfaces and paving (SEACAP 1 and 4) for rural roads in Vietnam.

Further sources of information

This review has focused on Low Volume Rural Road Maintenance. Further information on road maintenance in general and related issues can be accessed through the following links:


If you would like to make a contribution to this topic or help to 'sign-post' any key documents on the topic for gTKP partners and users, please contact Rob Petts:

Updated March 2010